Archive for December, 2006

Life’s little simplest pleasures

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

No being in the world is happier than a cat whose owner just got an electric blanket for Christmas.

Ciao resting

Read the rest of this entry »

Pictures from South Carolina

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

I finally got around to downloading the pictures of our South Carolina trip from our digital camera. Here are the two most absurd ones.

Flags flying at Maurice's BBQ

These are the flags flying in front of Maurice’s BBQ in Columbia, South Carolina. In order from top to bottom, those are the flag of the United States, the state flag of South Carolina, the Confederate flag, and the Union Jack. My best guess is that they are flying the Union Jack as solidarity with the United Kingdom (the only other nation really involved in fighting this utterly stupid Iraq War), although they don’t seem to realize that it’s typically considered an insult to fly one nation’s flag underneath another’s.

Observation tower at South Of The Border

This is the uniquely campy 66 meters tall hat-shaped observation tower at the South of the Border “roadside attraction” (you couldn’t really call it an amusement park). For those of you who’ve never had the “privilege” of visiting South of the Border, so-called because it is just south of the North Carolina/South Carolina border, let me just say that it is even worse than the experience of reading their hundreds of obnoxious billboards all along I-95. I swear to God, I was on I-95 in New York once, and I saw a billboard that said “South of the Border, 834 miles” (or whatever, I don’t remember the exact distance).

A disparity in speeds

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

The neighbors’ kids were playing outside earlier today with their new Christmas presents. The older brother got an electric Razor scooter and the younger one got an electric mock ATV. As they left their driveway for the first time in their new toys and started going up the street, I could already immediately spot the obvious problem.

The scooter is rather fast. It’s built efficiently, and can easily exceed 10 mph. The mock ATV, however, is a pure children’s toy, and probably goes about 2 to 3 mph, tops. The older brother was already at the end of the street before his younger sibling even made it past the end of their yard. These two toys have good synergy.

In a perfect world, you’d figure out ahead of time that if you have two boys who like playing together, and you get them both motorized toys, then both toys should be able to go at the same speed. In the real world, though, this is something you’d probably never think of beforehand (I wouldn’t have), and the large problem only becomes evident once it is too late.

Popular Science has a ways to go

Friday, December 29th, 2006

I’ve heard some bad things about Popular Science in my time, but I got a really good deal on a subscription recently, so I decided to give it a second chance. The articles are okay (although the lead article this month is about “Marines in Space”). It is the advertising in which this magazine really fails. I’m not going to mince words here. The advertising in Popular Science is absolute bullshit. A lot of the ads are for various scam pseudoscientific contraptions, and it’s frankly insulting to see them in a magazine that purportedly is about science. You don’t see nonsense like this in Scientific American or SEED Magazine; why is it in Popular Science?

I think you need to see an example of what I’m talking about before you realize how craptacular this advertising really is. Here’s the most egregious ad from the January 2007 issue, which I have scanned in:

Read the rest of this entry »

Sponsorship messages on Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

Earlier I wrote that there might be a large conflagration over a new change in Wikipedia’s direction. Today, that has finally happened.

An hour ago our first sponsorship message went live on all Wikimedia Foundation projects. We had one previous matching donations message, but that was an anonymous donor (who ended up giving $286,800), and so it didn’t really ruffle any feathers. This current matching donor, however, is Virgin Unite, the charity arm of Virgin United, Richard Branson’s company. As a thanks for matching all donations from today, we have given them a short sponsorship message on the sitenotice, as well as displaying their logo. Note that the sitenotice is displayed across all Wikimedia Foundation sites, which includes all language versions of Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Wikimedia Commons, etc.

Anyway, we’re now seeing an explosion of disagreement over this because lots of people think this amounts to Wikipedia displaying advertisements, which is something we said we’d never do and could possibly represent the downfall of the free content ideals of Wikipedia. I don’t personally hold these views. I’m more of a pragmatist. Wikimedia Foundation needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to keep their servers running, and matching donors, even with sponsorship messages, is a good idea. It only lasts for one day. It’s not like we’re putting permanent banner ads on the site.

Tomorrow’s matching donor is going to be Dell. Duuude, you’re getting a donation.

Also, Kelly Martin has written in her blog that our link in the sponsorship message brought down the entire Virgin Unite website. It looks like we were almost too successful in delivering them traffic.

On cognition

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

I went to the barbershop today with my dad. One of the barbers had her four year old son there, just hanging out. He made the astute (and correct) observation that my dad and I wear the same shoes. So my dad asked him why.

The kid just didn’t get it. He thought “why” meant why did he say we were wearing matching shoes. So he said something about them looking the same. My dad repeatedly asked why. Each time, the kid responded with another justification explaining that our shoes were matching, not any kind of deeper thought into why our shoes match. Maybe the four-year-old brain can’t comprehend the “why” of a situation. Or maybe he was so unsure of himself that he thinks any question by an adult is questioning his perceptions rather than asking something deeper.

Anyone even a bit older would trivially know that, yes, we are wearing the same shoes, and would realize that is an accepted fact by all parties. The question “why” would thus take on a different, deeper meaning. But there’s something missing in the four-year-old mind.

Read the rest of this entry »

Magna Cum Softly

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

I will have to register my gripes with the summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude ranking systems. The way they are used in many undergraduate programs in the United States, they are rather unfair, and place more emphasis on finagling course selection than any actual academic achievement.

For example, at the University of Maryland, these awards are given out across the board to people who meet certain GPA thresholds. The problem is that many of the more rigorous majors, especially the scientific ones, pretty much rule out any contention. For example, one of my friends is a physics major, and there was a course he had to take as part of his major. There were twelve students in the class. My friend got the highest overall grade, yet even he was given a B; nobody in class received an A. Combine that with another class with a strict instructor and my friend is ruled out of the highest honors by sheer virtue of having tough classes and strict professors.

Meanwhile, an English major can cruise along getting all As with less effort and academic diligence than it takes to get mostly As in a hard science major. The grading expectations are completely different. As a result, if you look at Maryland’s list of cum laude awards each year, they’re heavily biased against science majors and in favor of humanities majors. The only fix I can think of is to get rid of the GPA requirement and just assign a set amount of the honors to the top-scoring people in all majors.

Never mind that there’s the issue of course selection. If you have an open major with few courses that are required, and those that do have required courses have many different potential professors per class, then you can optimize your schedule for As by looking at grades from previous semesters and taking the courses with the most lenient professors that are most likely to assign good grades. I will admit to having done this slightly, that is, if a course I want to take has multiple professors I ask around and find out which one is a better professor, but with services like Pick-A-Prof you can really optimize a four-year schedule to be with only the most lenient of teachers.

Reflections on a Christmas trip

Tuesday, December 26th, 2006

It was enlightening spending time with the part of the family that I don’t often spend time with, due to sheer distance (my father’s parents live 500 miles away and his sister and her family live in Italy). I also had a few good laughs thanks to my grandfather. He’s quite the character. I believe I talked about him in a previous post, but that didn’t cover everything.

My grandparents live in a “unique” retirement community. Everyone gets their own home, with housekeeping service, nightly communal dinners in a dining hall, and other amenities. It’s a big step up from a retirement home. All of the residents also get their own electric golf cart for use in getting around the gated community. It’s a very good idea. The electric golf carts cut down on pollution, and an elderly driver behind the wheel of a golf cart isn’t nearly as dangerous as an elderly driver behind the wheel of an automobile (I’d like to see a golf cart take out an entire farmer’s market!). As a consequence of the golf carts, there are golf cart parking lots near all of the buildings inside the community. They look like miniaturized normal parking lots, or alternatively, they look like normal parking lots, and you think you’re a giant.

We were walking back from dinner one night and grandpa, driving grandma in the golf cart, passed us back on the way to the house. He honked the horn and my dad didn’t immediately step out of the way, so my grandpa inquired, “Have you been run over recently?” I cannot ascertain if this question was asked in jest, but my dad did exit the path of the vehicle.

If you ever wanted to know who drinks O’Douls non-alcoholic beer, well … it’s my grandfather. He has heart problems and alcohol probably isn’t good for him, so he drinks O’Douls instead. Of course, this doesn’t keep him from ordering wine with his meals. Ah well.

He was working on a large Christmas card list while we were there. He’s been sending this thing out once annually every year now for decades. The list used to be as large as 250 people, but it’s now down to 180. The only way you can get off the list is by dying, so that says a bit about the sad state of growing old. The list is an accumulation of pretty much all the people my grandfather has known throughout his life. It includes copious military buddies from when he served decades ago. He writes a long default letter and then adds a personal message to each letter before sending it.

I cannot imagine trying to compile such a list myself. I barely know anyone’s address. I can think of dozens of people I’ve known who have already exited my life, people who I would desperately like to contact but have no idea how to reach. I can see the value in such a list. Also, imagine the work it takes to send out such a letter (let alone the cost of the stamps). My grandfather uses the Internet now, and surely such a mailing could much more easily be done by use of the CC: field on an email, but the problem is, even though my grandfather uses a computer, the majority of the people on the mailing list probably don’t. There’s a whole generation of people out there growing old who will die never having used computers; they’re the last vestiges of those who still use the postal system for correspondence rather than just sending stuff.

My granddad’s bathroom tells a story just by itself. A battered embossed bronze plate hangs above the toilet, bearing the names and insignias of sixteen German cities. If you didn’t know better, you might think, that this being the South, there was some kind of Neo-Nazi Fatherland worship going on. But I do know better. My grandfather spent many years as part of the occupying army in Germany post-World War II, and this was simply something he brought back, decades ago. If anything, it’s Anti-Nazi.

Also in the bathroom, hiding on the corner of the sink behind a lamp, seven soap sculptures sit on end. I say “sculpture”, but they weren’t sculpted consciously. Rather, they were used somewhat normally, but always stored on end, so, over time, they narrowed in the middle but not on the ends. Once they became dangerously close to breaking all the way through my grandfather set them aside and got a fresh bar to work with. On the sink near the faucet, an eighth bar of soap stands balanced on end, its middle only slightly narrowed, betraying its ultimate fate.

First church service

Monday, December 25th, 2006

Yesterday night I passed a milestone of sorts. I attended my first real church service. It may seem kind of surprising in a society as religious as this to go 21 years without attending the kind of thing many people attend every weekend, but let me explain. First of all, my mother is Jewish, and I did go to a few synagogue services when I was younger (mostly for Bar/Bat Mitzvahs though). I just never had any occasion to go to a church service though; none of the people I’m closest to are religious at all. I did go to a Kent Hovind performance once, and there was a little bit of prayer there before the main event, but I wouldn’t call it a serious service.

Anyway, the service was nice. It lasted just under an hour, which was rather surprising to me. There was some talking and a lot of singing. The singing was nice; I even recognized one of the tunes as non-secular in nature (Greensleaves) that had religious lyrics superimposed on top of. Despite never having been to a church service before, I still knew most of the prayers and most of the songs, and was able to keep pace. That’s how much religion splashes over into society.

I can’t really say I had any negative impressions of it. Everyone was nice, and I could clearly see that most people there appeared to be getting something out of it. I wasn’t getting quite the same thing out of it, but it was an interesting cultural experience nonetheless. I even went up front to take communion when the time came around (this being a Presbyterian church, unlike the Catholics, they don’t appear to prohibit non-believers from doing so). Their wine tasted like Manischevitz, I’ll be honest.

Overall, I’m glad I went. Now I understand a little bit more of what drives some of the people around me. The female preacher was also very thankful that we brought my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, and never would have been able to make it on her own. Although she can’t talk much anymore, she did express appreciation at being taken (when her husband said she wouldn’t get anything out of it and there was no point in going). I’m just glad that she left the Baptish Church she had been with for most of her life — as far as I can tell, they’re much stricter than the Presbyterians (and more looney, too).

And besides, there’s something aesthetic about singing Silent Night in a darkened church while everyone holds a lit candle. It wasn’t a religious feeling, but it was nice.

One crazy family

Saturday, December 23rd, 2006

I’m dealing with my dad’s parents right now, and it’s quite the show. My grandmother has middle to late stage Alzheimers, so she’s barely there anymore. My grandfather, on the other hand, is quite the character. Maybe you’ll find him as amusing as I do.

He seems to live up to all of those stereotypes of the foul-mouthed old war veteran. He still has all of his medals from World War II on proudly displayed in his office. And he’s just so damned cynical — I’ve never really met anyone else quite like him. A lot of my friends may act cynical, but my grandpa lives it.

We were at dinner and it ran a bit late and he realized he was going to miss the re-airing of the Lawrence Welk Christmas song broadcast, which he still fondly enjoys. His simple response was, “That’s okay, I’m used to shit happening to me.” He was also talking about this latest scientific study where the researchers tried measuring any effect from over six thousand people praying. His conclusion based off the report was, “You need a damned lot more people praying than that to make a difference.” He went on to say a simple statement that rings true to me — “Nobody’s in charge.”

I guess you can see where I got my atheism from. My grandmother was once religious, but she’s now too out of it to understand much of it. My grandfather is way too damn cynical to believe in any of it. And on my mother’s side (who are all Jewish), my grandfather was a socialist radicalist labor union organizer. He was more inclined to believe that religion was the opiate of the masses to believe in it. So although my dad was raised somewhat religious, he kind of escaped from it over time. My mom would go to synagogue occasionally, but I guess didn’t buy into much of it. Neither made any attempt to indoctrinate me into religion in my youth, so here I am, in the default believing position; that is to say, none.